Archive for October, 2011

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 17: In conclusion, it takes a strategy

This is the last of a series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s time to sum up this series, since it has spanned sporadic entries over nearly five years. In fifty-four years on the planet I have made plenty of stumbles and encountered many setbacks. I have also had a fair number of successes. To the extent I have succeeded, it was part self-reliance and part because I was reasonably fortunate. I was fortunate to be born middle class in America. This gave me some opportunities to succeed but did not guarantee success. Regardless of whether you came into life as a child of poverty, a child of wealth or somewhere in between, what you have to work with is simply what you possess.

I attribute most of my successes to following strategies and my willingness to change them when needed. Success is not generally achieved by following a formula. You won’t find it in church, from the biases of a political party or from a self help book. The truth is one size does not fit all. It never has and never will. You are guaranteed to be unique on this planet, so any strategy that you follow has to work with you and your predispositions. Essentially, it is up to you to quantify your success and mostly up to you to achieve it.

However, I do believe strategies are critical to achieving success, “success” being something only you can assess. Thus it helps to first have a vision of what a successful life would look or feel like for you. When I graduated college, I was pretty much clueless on how I would spend my life. I knew I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and my life. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place through the skills and creativity that I possessed. Just as companies need a vision, so should you invest some time and thought in creating a personal vision of your future. How do you see your life at age 30, 40, 50 and 60? You may find that what you wanted at age 30 does not fit your feelings when you arrive at age 30. However, by working toward that vision strategically, you will at least come to that understanding, and probably sooner rather than later. My suggestion is to keep the vision achievable. It’s okay to aspire to be a Broadway actress or an NFL quarterback, but keep a backup plan in case that does not pan out. If you realize the vision that you created no longer holds the allure it used to, create a new vision that does. Your vision should be hopeful. It should be feel inspirational and welcome.

The strategies you use to get there will of course vary. Lacking any other resources, a self-help book may have a well-defined path that you can try. At least it will give you something to mull over. Based on my experience, simply having a strategy is critical. You don’t need to always follow the strategy to the letter, but you do need to move in its direction and be reasonably consistent following it. Aimlessness is not a strategy, but an admission that you will allow the universe to direct you rather than yourself.

If following a particular strategy does not work for you, either adapt it to better fit you or find a new strategy. A good example is dieting, or more specifically finding a strategy to have and maintain a healthy weight. Most of us Americans will be overweight or obese in our life and thus probably want to take off extra weight. There are lots of diets (tactics) to take off weight, but most of them do not succeed in the long run because they do not work with a person’s natural tendencies. If following a particular diet does not work for you, consider those aspects that aren’t working for you and find one that better addresses those aspects. A strategy is a means to an end, not an end of itself. It helps you realize your vision for yourself. It must work with your natural proclivities to help you achieve your personal vision. If it does not, it’s not a strategy for you. Once you have a strategy that aligns with your vision and seems to be helping you get there, follow it with as much dogged tenacity as you can.

I do feel it is very important to follow a sound financial strategy. For tactics on this, there are a few other lessons you can real in my Real Life 101 archive. In general, a sound financial strategy will minimize personal debt unless it helps you acquire wealth. There are two general components to a successful financial strategy: living beneath your means and saving the difference. Some corollaries quickly emerge: avoid as much debt as possible and get rid of debt as quickly as is prudent. My own experience indicates that doggedly following these principles works. It is not particularly fun or glamorous. To the extent that you will enjoy your wealth, it will happen later in life. If you do not you may enjoy marginally greater wealth now, but comparatively much worse wealth when you are older. Wealth builds on itself, which is why it is critical to get in the habit of saving and do it regularly. Doing it automatically is preferred. Have an allotment go directly from your paycheck into savings and/or retirement accounts. Always save the same percent of your income and adjust the percentage upward if your income allows. When you do this, you will find that you will naturally live on what’s left.

For myself, I have found that regular charitable giving comes back at you. It has happened so often in my life that it is almost spooky. I would not be surprised if you found this to be true as well. It’s like in doing so you clear a psychic space in front of your future that opens up new opportunities. Perhaps this should not be so strange because in truth we are all connected to one another. It is the law of karma working in your favor.

Okay young adult, you are on your own now. Expect to step on some mines going through life. This happens to all of us but if you follow my strategies you should encounter fewer of them. However, with sound strategies in place, you will find that these setbacks, no matter how horrible they first appear, can fade, often quite quickly. Good luck.

 
The Thinker

Free and clear

Protestors on Wall Street and elsewhere are occupying spots in major cities, trying to make the top one percent acknowledge the ninety nine percent. Many are without jobs. Those with jobs may have taken pay cuts, or were forced to go part time, or were required to contribute more toward health care or retirement. Many of those protestors also carry the burden of underwater mortgages. Others are saddled with burdensome student debt.

They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the over leveraged, the disenfranchised and the generally pissed off. If you are one of them, at a certain point you might as well pitch a tent in Zucotti Park. The weather may be too hot or too cold. You may have to wait in a line at McDonalds at 3 AM to use a toilet. You may suffer from insomnia from the din of a city that never sleeps and smell like a bus depot. But at least you are in the presence of fellow compatriots. You have known relentless misery, you are knowing more misery but at least you can talk with someone who really understands. And once a day or so you can shout out your lungs at the largely tone-deaf moneyed class who might, if the weather is nice, toast you with champagne from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange.

Mortgage rates are at record lows, but little good this does someone who is underwater on their mortgage. Because they had the flawed judgment to misjudge the future, they are no longer credit worthy, so certainly no respectable lender is going to let them renegotiate their mortgage. The Sword of Damocles shall always be pressed against their chests. No, only good people, really special people, i.e. those with actual equity in their house and good jobs get to refinance their mortgages at crazy low interest rates. In that sense, maybe I am one of the one percent.

No, not really. Our income is not that lofty. We’d need $343,927 in adjusted gross income to fall into that bracket. We’re not quite in the top five percent either. We’d need $154,653 in AGI to qualify. We come close though, so we are definitely in the top ten percent, which is good enough for many of us with mortgages to get one of those sweet refinance deals. Unlike those with underwater mortgages, our property had about twenty years to mostly appreciate, so that when prices finally fell we still had plenty of equity. Plus, over nearly two decades we have chipped away at our house’s principle. The current balance on our mortgage is $64,211.24. We paid $191,000 for the house in 1993 and took a mortgage for $171,900 of the amount. It was not until two years ago that we managed to get the balance below $100,000.

Despite our current 6.875% interest rate, our credit union is still happy to refinance the balance of our mortgage, if we don’t mind giving them $2581 in various fees for the privilege. In exchange they will pay off our 30-year mortgage and give us a new 10-year mortgage at 2.875%. We should save $372 a month in interest, once we pay off the fees, which will take about seven months.

As for those of you with underwater mortgages, sorry, you are largely out of luck. I’d like to say we possessed some sort of genius, buying low in good neighborhoods but the truth was we were just lucky. My wife and I could easily have been underwater on our mortgage too. By chance and perhaps date of birth we rolled double sixes.

Please don’t be angry with us. Yet there must be some sort of element of unfairness here. Someone must be getting shafted when we start accumulating $372 more a month. Rest assured that just like the brokers on Wall Street this extra income will be unearned. I did not have to take a part time job at a Wal-Mart to bring home this extra bacon. I just had to fill out some papers, tidy up the house for the real estate appraiser and endure yet another loan closing ceremony. This will be our fourth, since we first owned a townhouse and already refinanced once. The only deficiency to our refinanced loan is that I will have less mortgage interest to write off on my taxes. Still, I would rather pay more taxes than pay a lender extra interest. Perhaps some of it will trickle down to some of you. I would not hold your breath. I don’t plan to hire a gardener, and I already got a service that mows the grass.

Granted, owning a house comes with all sorts of other expenses not factored into the principle, interest and escrow. The entire outside of our house with the exception of three doors has been replaced. Every appliance has been replaced, sometimes more than once. Still, I can remember the days when I was living on a marginal income and rented. Once a year like clockwork you could count on the rent being raised, generally well above the cost of living. Soon we will be paying less per month in principle and interest than we paid thirty years ago per month when we lived in an apartment. It makes no sense. Meanwhile, as the downsized give up houses and end up back in apartments, extra demand is making rents go up. This crazy disparity makes no sense to me. It probably does to a Republican like Herman Cain. After all, they are loooosers.

The day is not that far off (I am hoping less than five years) when we will make that final mortgage payment. Then there will be no more mortgage payments ever. We will own the house, not to mention our cars, free and clear. Moreover, for the first time since I was age twenty or so I will be able to honestly say that I won’t owe anyone a dime. I can lay down the heavy burden of debt from my shoulders at last. I plan a party on that day, and drinking a lot of expensive champagne. I might even get drunk.

Being free of debt won’t mean our lives will be free, of course. I don’t know what I will do with all that extra money every month. Perhaps with my decent pension and retirement saving I will truly retire and never work another day in my life. Perhaps it will get eaten up in ever more egregious health care premiums or long-term care insurance. For a while though I hope I can at least revel in being free from the burden of debt.

Perhaps I will pitch a tent in Zucotti Park.

 
The Thinker

Howl-o-screaming at Busch Gardens

Need to scream a bit? I didn’t particularly feel the need to do so. But when our adult daughter suggested that we drive down to Williamsburg, Virginia to join her for a day at Busch Gardens during the Halloween season, we took her up on it.

We’re not much for theme parks, but if you have to go to a theme park then Busch Gardens during the off season is the place to go, particularly after 6 p.m. when they crank up the fog machines and the haunted houses open. My memories of theme parks usually involve three things: summer, sweat and long lines. Busch Gardens on an autumn Friday had temperatures in the sixties, no sweat and only modest lines to the various attractions. For someone not into theme parks, Busch Gardens was almost fun. Even the traffic cooperated. Amazingly, there were no traffic tie-ups or slowdowns on I-95 and I-64. This may be a first.

I have a pathological hatred of Disney World, and was only reluctantly prodded to go there in 1996. I went on the insistence of my wife, who said our daughter “still has the magic” at age six to believe in the crap Disney was selling. I still have memories of trying to take her out on her first Halloween at age three. Her mother made her a beautiful Mary Poppins dress but Halloween proved too traumatic for her, so she observed it from the safety of her room. Now at age twenty-two, she is quite comfortable regressing to age six. I wondered if she was high on candy corn, so often was she tugging at our arms leading us into rides, shows and various haunted houses at the park.

Busch Gardens is a right-sized theme park, neither too small nor too enormous, pretty, family-friendly and with plenty of screaming even when it was not the Halloween season. The screaming is provided year round, courtesy of the roller coasters at the park. If you ask me, riding some of those coasters after dark with about ten million fog machines cranked up to maximum was likely the scariest part of their “Howl-o-scream” weekend. When you watch some of their roller coasters in action, particularly the Griffin, you wonder why anyone in their right mind would get on one of those machines. They certainly make its occupants scream. Jeffrey Dahmer himself could not get more vitriolic screams out of his victims. The Griffin in particular is a feat of fright engineering: designed by sadistic engineers for masochists. Give me a funnel cake instead.

Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Busch Gardens goes with a European theme, specifically a western European theme, and bad themes at that. Depending on what “country” you are in, you will get frequently annoying stereotypical music of that country ringing in your ears. Don’t you know there is nothing more to Germany than Bavaria? Moreover if you were to visit Bavaria, it would be 1920 or so, they would be all be in native dress and playing accordion music. And what’s with Handel’s Water Music in “England”? Yes, it was written for English royalty, but Handel was German. A map of the park was essential because signage was not great. I wondered how people made it out of the park when it closed at 10 p.m. with the lights so low and little in the way of directions. Maybe they were chased away by various assorted clowns and zombies.

The highlight of our day was not the rides (some of which were converted into haunted houses), but the many shows you could take in instead, all near Broadway quality, all with a Halloween theme and all quite fun. Considering we paid about $50 each to get in (with discount coupons) we easily got our money’s worth, although Busch Gardens picked our wallets in other ways with parking fees ($13) and mediocre meals ($60 or so). One thing I can say for Busch Gardens is despite its somewhat kitschy “countries”, it is a beautiful theme park that manages to integrate nature rather well.

Would Busch Gardens deliver the goods with its haunted houses? This is, after all, a family theme park. For those of you into haunted houses, what you get is a PG-13 version of Halloween. Kudos on all the fog machines, Busch Gardens. It’s hard to imagine how you could have generated more artificial fog; even in our jackets we were downright cold. The haunted houses though turned out to be relatively tame. No dismembered corpses. No blood on the floors. In fact, there are only a relatively small number of quickly mastered tricks to these haunted houses:

  • Use lots of darkness and strobe lights.
  • Enforce feelings of claustrophobia from time to time. One of them did it quite well by hanging plastic sheeting three to four feet above the ground.
  • Have people in ghoulish costumes hoisting fake weapons appear randomly from dark corners or out of windows.
  • Have those same people invade your personal space but not actually touch you.
  • Use air horns religiously.
  • Use plenty of clowns if possible. There was a kind of “clown alley” where you were accosted by creepy clowns all very much in your face and not afraid to follow you. Who needs zombies when clowns are so much scarier?
  • Make sure you run into things unexpectedly in the dark, particularly stringy stuff.
  • Dirty toilets and urinals are okay.
  • Go with a theme for each haunted house. I preferred the haunted house with the man-eating chicken and the bee man; now that’s creative.

In truth I had more fun interacting with the performers than they had performing for me. I enjoyed giving them stink eyes and trying to get into their personal space. After all, where is the fright when you know they won’t actually do anything to you?

In short, you may howl more from laughter than from fright, particularly if like me your heart medicine controls your heartbeat, so you know you won’t get an adrenaline rush. Still, altogether the Howl-o-scream is well worth the price of admission. However, if you demand lots of blood and guts in your haunted houses, better pick a more violent venue.

 
The Thinker

Wall Street’s puppet masters

Last month I wrote how the oligarchy stays in charge. At the time, the Occupy Wall Street movement was nascent, so nascent that not even I was blogging about it. Since then it, everything has changed. It used to be that the headlines were full of stories about how we need to cut the deficit and lower taxes. Thanks to OWS, the story is now about the chronic lack of jobs, sinking standards of living that seem unstoppable, and a generation of mostly twenty somethings with no real job prospects on even their most distant horizons. They are joined by other large groups of unemployed people who happen to be over fifty, and thus become something like untouchables. Unemployment is a problem at all levels of the workforce. The OWS movement is finally giving it the focus it deserves, and rightly raises the question: why did we bail out Wall Street when none of it trickled down to the unemployed who needed it most?

The OWS movement has at least made me do more pondering about how the wealthy stay wealthy and how the rest of us take it on the chin. There are the obvious strategies that I mentioned in the previous post: the moneyed and Wall Street buy the influence they want. Then there are less obvious strategies: such as using inheritances to pass unearned income to the next generation, wealth that is arguably put to unproductive uses. Then there are the strategies that most people don’t think about.

For example, there is snuffing out potential competition. The oil companies, in spite of their profits, are running scared of the clean energy industry. Oh sure, they are spending lots of money with newspaper advertisements touting how they are going green by doing solar energy projects and the like. This is ninety percent setting expectations and one percent doing something tangible. It’s a try to set up a meme with the public that, “Well, they really aren’t entirely evil just because they want to rip up Alberta’s tar sands.” Those with the money, at least if they are savvy, will continue to spend significant capital to make sure competitive markets don’t emerge.

It’s not coincidence that the oil industry contributes disproportionately to Republican candidates, for instance. This behavior is not seen as anticompetitive; it is seen as pro-business. It’s easy to win the competition when you can use money to set an uneven playing field from the start. Thus money buys not just political power, but the ability to have your message drown out the competition’s. In many cases, you can buy out these threats with your ready capital, often ostensibly to build market share in an emerging industry, but more typically to quietly kill them so business as usual can continue.

This happens all the time here in American but we rarely notice it. Why are there only three major ratings firms on Wall Street? It is in part because the big three have the capital to squash any competition. The government rarely breaks up companies anymore, even after the Great Recession. In fact, despite the lessons of the Great Recession, the trend is just the opposite. Thus, as one example, Bank of America swallows up Countrywide Mortgage and everyone yawns. Money gives you this sort of power. Unless you have an administration and congress full of trustbusters, abuse simply leads to more abuse.

Perhaps the most insidious way to stay in charge is through financial obfuscation. A good example is derivative stocks. The more complex you make a financial instrument, the harder it is to figure out what is really going on. Only experts can really understand how these instruments work, and then only dimly. In all likelihood the only ones who really understand them are those who create and manage them.

That leaves us poor individual investors pretty much baffled. We know we need to invest money for the future but unless the financial entity is incredibly simple, like simple shares of a blue chip stock or an index fund, we are baffled by how it works or how to fairly value them. Instead we turn to so-called experts to give us advice on what represents good investments, for which usually they have a vested interest that disproportionately lines their pockets. To really understand our financial world, you need a PhD in finance plus you have to keep up on the minutia of markets. If you can do this, you can be bought off. Wall Street will hire you for seven or eight figure incomes to manage a fund. Unless you have missionary zeal, you won’t be an Elizabeth Warren trying to simplify things for the average consumer. And if you are Elizabeth Warren, you will find out that politicians have been bought off specifically to keep you out of a position of power.

Yes, obfuscation is profitable, at least for those already in charge, and it effectively drains wealth from the rest of us. We think that to make money we must do it through specially trained intercessors on Wall Street. What we really need are simplified rules and financial instruments that the average person can understand, which implies that many “innovative” financial instruments should probably be outlawed. As we have seen, many were engineered without real failsafes and have cascading effects when they fail that drain wealth principally from those who never directly invested in these instruments.

No wonder Republicans are dead set against a consumer protection agency. They realize that if such an agency were effective, it might level the playing field. And what that really means is that wealth generated through third parties and financial obfuscation might return to where it rightly belongs: to individual investors.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Mommie Dearest (1981)

There is something mesmerizing about those high eyebrows, artificially extended with makeup far up the forehead. The eyebrows hold a prominent part themselves in this cult classic movie, about the life of the actress Joan Crawford as seen through the jaded eyes of her adopted daughter Christina. They should really get top billing because they look surreal and quite frankly, make Joan Crawford look stunningly unattractive. Watching the movie Mommie Dearest again after thirty years (so long ago that I was unpartnered at the time), I had simply forgotten those mesmerizing eyebrows.

The autobiography by Christina Crawford that the movie was based on turned into an unexpected bestseller in the late 1970s, which made the movie based on the book a highly anticipated event. In the movie, actress Faye Dunaway portrayed the late Joan Crawford as an aging and fading Hollywood star. And what a job she does! Dunaway’s performance is unforgettable, not in a good way, but in a “grab you by the shoulders and shake you until you feel faint and fall on the floor” sort of way. Director Frank Perry must have been mesmerized by Dunaway too, who five years earlier made a star for herself in the blockbuster Network. It’s a director’s job to push an actor when needed or hold her back when necessary. Dunaway desperately needed to be held back in this movie. Instead we get a raw Dunaway playing a cleanliness-obsessed control freak Joan Crawford. The portrayal is so over the top that there is no way the real Joan Crawford could possibly have been this angry and this emotionally abusive.

At first Paramount tried to market the film as a drama, but when it went through previews it became apparent that a new marketing strategy was needed. For the most part audiences were stupefied by Dunaway’s runaway performance and eventually started laughing at them. So Paramount framed the movie as a comedy. Over time, the movie morphed into a cult classic that thirty years later has lost none of its peculiar charm. It never became quite the hit that The Rocky Horror Picture Show did, but for a while after the film itself faded from memory it could be found on midnight showings generally near college campuses. Patrons would show up in Christina Crawford dresses, often bringing wire hangers to dangle during the famous wire hanger scene, and sometimes paper mache axes. Axes? Yes, in just one of many memorable scenes, this one in her garden after learning her contract had been canceled by MGM, in the middle of the night Crawford cuts down a tree in her garden while making Christina and her adopted brother Christopher watch. The classic line? “Tina, bring me the axe!!!”

Thankfully for bad movie buffs, the film is full of moments like this, with my favorite near the end when she tells the board of directors of Pepsi Cola, “Don’t f*** with me, fellas!” Yes, child abuse is just one of Crawford’s way of letting off a little steam, and there is plenty of child abuse to observe. Normally watching incidents like this would leave you feeling sick or shaken, but they are so over the top that it is hard not to laugh instead. Curiously, while you hear lots of crying and wailing from Christina and Christopher in these scenes, it occurs mostly off camera.

The plot gets curiouser when Christina becomes a teenager and Joan ships her off to boarding school. Some innocent kissing with a boy at the school sends Joan ballistic, and Christina is shipped off to a nunnery while Joan suffers through a number of relationships, only one of them results in marriage. When Joan isn’t ranting and raving, playing psychological tug of war with Christina, or feeding her own vanity, she portrays her own obsessive compulsive disorder for cleanliness, or drowns her feelings in alcohol and cigarettes. When as an adult Christina makes a modest name for herself in a soap opera, then has to have an ovarian cyst removed, big mama insists on stepping in to her role on the soap opera, just for a while, until she heals. You just want to hide under a rock during that scene. Apparently the child abuse of poor Christina extended even into adulthood.

Just wow! The result is a movie that is so over the top that it is something of a jaw-dropping hoot, a huge and garish fireworks show for cinemagoers to revel in. While Dunaway generally gets all the camera time, Diana Scarwid’s portrayal of Christina is also memorable. Her adoptive mother seems to be rubbing off on her. At the end of the movie when Christina and Christopher realize she left them nothing in her will, her brother states that she got the last word, as always. Suddenly we see a twitchy look in Christina’s eye. You can see her starting to pen the biography in her mind.

Bad movie fanatics, if you haven’t seen Mommie Dearest, you simply must! It remains a classic in its genre, every bit as bad, if not more so, than any review you can read about it. Rent it.

 
The Thinker

Sucking it up for Herman Cain

Herman Cain is Tea Party America’s favorite presidential candidate of the moment. Recent polls show him leading among Republican voters. While recent history suggests that Cain fascination will be brief (Michele who? Rick who?), you can understand why conservatives would be gaga over him. Cain, when speaking about Occupy Wall Street protesters, had this retort:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! [...] It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded; it is someone’s fault if they failed.

Attention 99% America: this may not be obvious to you but anyone can succeed in America. The only reason we are all not millionaires is because only one percent found the moxie to become a success. The ability to achieve success includes everyone: including the crippled, the disease ridden, the mentally retarded and the homeless. You can all become independently rich if you try hard enough. And if you don’t, you are a failure. A complete looooser.

If you are still not getting it, consider the curve of standard deviation below. It seems in nature most of us fit somewhere in the middle of the curve, but some of us are must inevitably be on the low or the high end. There are very few in the top one percent of the curve. Herman Cain is one of them. You and me, we’re in the 99% and the reason that I infer this is true, channeling Herman Cain, is because we chose to go fat and be lazy:

If you are not in the top 1%, you are a looooser

In the world of Herman Cain and Tea Party America, here is where we could all be if we tried hard enough:

The possible American world according to Herman Cain

The possible American world according to Herman Cain

That’s right. We all can all be millionaires, just suck in it, suck it up, be clever, put your nose to the grindstone and inevitably you too, like Herman Cain, can rise from humble circumstances to become a millionaire. It’s that simple. When you have the right mental attitude, just like God, you can move mountains. End of story.

But some people just aren’t getting it. They apparently include Matt, a guy I hired to do some handyman work for me. The guy I tried to hire was too busy, so he referred me to Matt. Matt is a guy who lives somewhere off I-66 in Virginia’s Piedmont. Five days a week he works a full time job somewhere that obviously does not come close to covering his modest lifestyle. When not working, he is taking care of his four kids so his wife can work at her odd part time jobs. On some Friday and Saturday nights, if he is lucky, he gets gigs playing the guitar at local pubs, which contributes some spare change to household expenses, and is his one passion in life. On Thursdays and Saturdays he runs his other business: handyman for hire. He does about a third of the work himself, but he also hires other good ol’ white boys like him to put in a few hours here and there to handle customers like me who are not Tool Time Tims. All of them so far that I’ve met smoke and all appear to live hand to mouth. They are Joe Bageant’s poor working class. This week some of them made some spare change because Matt subcontracted some of my work to them.

The weather has not been a construction worker’s friend this week. We had torrential rain for a good part of yesterday. The guys tried to tack down the new screening on our deck between downpours; otherwise they were in our garage trying to put up a new garage ceiling. For some reason the morons who built our house back in the 1980s attached drywall to the ceiling of our garage. About a quarter of it fell out while I was cleaning it a few weeks back, fortunately not while I was directly under it. I’m having them replace it with sturdier particleboard, and directed that they actually use screws to attach the boards into the joists instead of the drywall nails used when the house was constructed. Anyhow, progress has been slow.

Matt apparently is not working hard enough to be a success. He was managing multiple other projects with other good ol’ boys, which meant frequent trips to Manassas and other places to make things right. He’s pissed that he’s behind on our job, and is apologetic. Fortunately I am in no hurry.

Matt is basically doing everything possible to make money in this economy with his natural talents, but even with three jobs and essentially working twelve or more hours a day seven days a week, it’s still not enough. What’s the problem here?

If you were thinking, “Well, the economy is not doing too great, and a handyman’s wages are pretty modest, and gosh, it takes a lot to feed a family of six” you are one of the 99% and hence a looooser. If you are the surreally out of touch Herman Cain, the solution is obvious: Matt is a failure. Moreover, he is simply not trying hard enough. Maybe if in addition to working seven days a week he gave up the guitar gigs and worked instead of sleep, he could finally achieve success. He basically should run himself into the ground even more than he is doing now, which is leaving him obese, tobacco addicted and with circles under his eyes.

I bet you can guess where I stand on this. It’s pretty simple. Herman Cain, you may be a success, but in many ways you are also a moron who cannot see one centimeter past the bridge of your nose. Only a moron or a conservative would actually believe this crap that you spewed out. And yet it seems part of our American character to believe your crap. The fault is never in our stars, or in the broader economy, or in life’s circumstances, or our genetics, or our abusive parents, or our substandard schools but only in ourselves. Just like original sin that the Catholics believe in, in your mind the original sin is the inability of everyone to replicate what you achieved. The rest of us are failures, basically dog poop.

Mr. Cain, please print this out and stick it up some orifice in your body where the sun don’t shine. Consider it a little thank you from one of the 99%. And Matt, I feel nothing but compassion for you and the good ol’ boys who work for you, even if I can’t get too close to you because I am a nonsmoker. You are doing extraordinary things and while it is still clearly not enough, you have my respect and heartfelt sympathy. You also have my sincere hope that the economy improves quickly so you don’t need to be someone’s handyman anymore and get the chance to breathe again. And I hope you get more gigs strumming out those songs that you love.

 
The Thinker

Web statistics are untrustworthy

Like many site owners, I monitor my web traffic. And every year I rediscover what Disraeli discovered long ago. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. The problem with web statistics is it is often hard to discern who is lying and by how much.

Most of us site owners care principally about one thing: how many eyeballs are looking at our site. And the answer turns out to be: no one really knows for sure. If you collect statistics using a hosted package like Awstats, it will accurately tell you how many overall hits and page requests you received, but at best it will poorly discern which of these represent eyeballs on the other end, instead of search engine robots and crawlers.

Based on my research, not even the mighty Google really knows. Because Google has tons of resources to throw at the web statistics problem, I figured they should know best. But it turns out that even Google can be fooled. At least that’s what I have inferred because around June 28, 2011 the number of page views on my site per day dropped roughly in half and have stayed that way. The same was not true with SiteMeter and StatCounter, which were also tracking my site usage.

06-26-2011

307

06-27-2011

337

06-28-2011

164

06-29-2011

165

06-30-2011

155

07-01-2011

135

07-02-2011

116

Was I upset that fewer people than I thought were hitting my blog? Not really. I had been thinking for months that Google Analytics was overstating my page views since their numbers were higher than anyone else’s, including SiteMeter. Sure, a higher number is always more flattering than a lower number but the average person arriving by a search engine is not reading three pages on my site, which Google Analytics was suggesting. Get real. No, the average human comes to glance at some post it found via a search engine then quickly move on. Anyhow, as you can see, around June 28, 2011 Google Analytics started applying a new algorithm, filtering out about half the page requests it used to. What I suspect happened is that they realized they were counting as humans a whole mess of automated requests.

At least Google eventually realized their mistake. As I noted some time ago, SiteMeter simply does not care. For years it has included the Google search engine robot, among others search engines and robots among my visitors and page views. Yes, it’s technically true they visited, but clearly no human was looking at my site. I guess if the agent can fire off the embedded Javascript that pings SiteMeter, that’s good enough for SiteMeter. What’s clear is that SiteMeter has basically given up bothering to care. They were one of the first to market in this business, developed a huge market share, and now apparently is only interested in the revenue from selling ad space when you go to their site to check on your statistics.

To get an idea of what’s wrong with web statistics these days, let’s look at visits and page views for this last week. Which statistics provider would you trust? Google Analytics, SiteMeter or StatCounter?

Date

Visits

Page views

Google SiteMeter StatCounter Google SiteMeter StatCounter

10/5/11

143

149

161

174

209

188

10/6/11

125

152

153

143

195

176

10/7/11

105

130

116

124

211

139

10/8/11

80

113

97

100

150

114

10/9/11

104

131

111

119

227

135

10/10/11

149

183

175

179

259

209

10/11/11

116

164

146

123

298

159

Total

822

1022

959

962

1549

1120

Increase compared with Google Analytics

24%

17%

61%

16%

Granted, each may have different criteria for when a day begins and ends. The good news is that since Google now does a better job of filtering requests, it is now consistently showing the lowest number of visits and page requests, hence I am more likely to trust it. But since they made a major change to their count algorithm in June, it throws off all of their statistics for this site for 2011, which makes the overall statistics pretty useless.

SiteMeter obviously does not care, since you simply have to look at the visit details to see that many of them come from googlebot.com. It would be a simple matter to filter these out, but SiteMeter would rather sell ads than improve their filters. Overall, SiteMeter counts 24% more visits and 61% more page views than Google Analytics.

StatCounter appears to be doing a pretty good job. Its numbers are about 15-20% higher than Google Analytics, but at least it tracks proportionately with Google Analytics. Moreover, StatCounter clearly actively maintains its product, so it has some integrity. I have some sympathy for those in this business. It must be very confusing to provide any sort of reliable statistics because there is never any way of knowing for sure whether a human is at the other end or not. Then there are all sorts of “in the background” web hits enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, such as redrawing Google Maps. On the web anyone with the right technical knowledge can pretend to be a human. All a statistics service can really do is make reasonable inferences and continuously change their filters as new trends emerge.

Products like Google Analytics do a great job of slicing and dicing the data they decide to count. I particularly like some of the newer features, like the ability to see on a map those states and cities that are providing most of your hits, and statistics that show many mobile users you have and what kind of devices they are using. Given their inability to wholly discern human traffic from automated traffic, even those statistics are suspect. Still, they are one of the few providers capable of providing any statistics like this, and they do it for free. So even numbers that are probably somewhat off are still valuable.

The ultimate lesson for site owners: take your web statistics with a grain of salt. In particular, realize that SiteMeter is a tainted product, useless for meaningful statistics, and useful only for getting some idea of what pages were most recently viewed. In fact, you might as well get rid of your SiteMeter tracking code altogether.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

Robert Schwentke is an up and coming director with a mixture of hits and misses. FlightPlan, starring Jody Foster, was one of misses; although it was so suspenseful that it was easy enough to miss the inconsistent and implausible points. On the other hand, RED (2010) was a pure popcorn movie and great fun. Where does The Time Traveler’s Wife rank among his short list of directed films?

Time travel seems to becoming a recurring theme in modern movies. Perhaps it is coincidence that this movie was released only a year after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a man who lived his life backwards. In The Time Traveler’s Wife, Eric Bana plays Henry DeTamble. Henry discovers as a child that he has the genetic ability to move about in time. He first discovers this ability watching his mother die in a car crash. He runs into an older version of himself who tries to comfort him through the trauma.

Time travel may sound like fun, but it is anything but that. In Henry’s case, you arrive at some unknown time and place buck-naked. The first thing you do is steal some clothes and money. You cannot change key events, like your mother’s date with death. Time travel does offer some unique opportunities: the ability to get a winning lottery ticket and to interact with his mother during the Vietnam area on a New York subway. Mostly it is a hassle and a curse.

At least he tends to pop in and out of time near people that mean a lot in his life. The one he cares the most about turns out to be Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), the talented daughter of a millionaire. She first encounters him as a child in a field near their estate when he appears as a middle-aged man. He literally keeps popping in and out of her life. This makes it confusing at first for them to have a relationship, but over time it does develop into love and eventually they marry. It’s unclear though whether Clare ever really chose Henry or not. Henry ages like anyone else, just lives his life in snippets here and there in our linear time stream. Even when they do decide to get married, getting through the marriage ceremony is problematic as Henry can disappear at random times. There is also the small matter of having children and whether their child will be a mutant like Henry. All these romantic and angst-filled issues form the core of a generally engrossing and well-acted love story.

If you haven’t seen the movie and wish to fully enjoy it, skip to the end spoilers paragraph.

What is missing, largely to keep the story from getting too fractured, is what Henry’s life is like in other times and places when he is not interacting with Clare. We see snippets with his mother, father and daughter over time. We have no idea how Henry became educated given his condition, and how he establishes identity when he has no real fixed address. Minor plot points like how Clare’s friends deal with Henry’s strange absences over so much time are ignored. Presumably it would be the subject of much scandalous talk and concern. It is never addressed in the movie. Certainly Clare is upset that her husband is gone and has no idea when she might see it again, but these natural frustrations are left largely unexpressed.

Among the gaping gaps in this movie that are unexplained is how Henry seems to always know how old he is. How is this possible? It’s not like he can carry a watch with him when he time travels. Yes, Henry lives his life sequentially just not across the time spectrum of ordinary people, so he has no reference unique to the fractured time stream that he lives in. Then there is the lottery ticket incident. One of the features of time travel is to know from the future what some event would be in the past, like a lottery ticket number. Yet he managed to purchase the winning lottery ticket for Clare somehow. Does he have a photographic memory where he can store this information? The movie makes it sound plausible, but it is not.

End spoilers.

The Time Traveler’s Wife has many of the same problems that FlightPlan had: gaping plot holes. Jody Foster was terrific in FlightPlan, as Rachel McAdams is here as Clare. The movie is full of heart, poignancy, love and romance making it a really good movie … if you don’t think about it too much.

It’s hard to complain too much about this movie, since it is so heartfelt and well executed. As a variant of a love story, it deserves an A+. As a movie that will tear at your heart, it’s a “keep of box of Kleenex handy” sort of movie. Overall it is quite a moving and exceptionally well acted. But as a coherent script, well, not so much. Perhaps it is best to use a little mental jujitsu to fill these gaps in your mind and assume if the movie had been longer it would have all been explained. Instead, the director chose to focus on the romantic core of the movie rather than ancillary plot holes and logical details. With that perspective, you’re going to have a great time.

I’ll only discount the movie by .1 points for the gaping plot holes, because otherwise the movie works so well as a bifurcated love story.

3.3 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Thanks are not enough, Steve

It’s not news that one of the founders of Apple Computers and the visionary behind a plethora of Apple (and other) products died yesterday. Even people who don’t usually tune in real news tuned into the news of Steve Jobs’ passing. There’s a good chance when they got the news, it appeared first on their iPad, iPhone or iMac, just a few of Steve’s many inventions. (I got the news on my iMac.)

The more attached you are to Apple’s products, the more the news affected you. Part of your feelings was also the anguish that the iPad or iPhone you held in your hand may be the last cool product you would own. Unquestionably, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary inventor and creator. It will take a couple of decades for it to sink in just how greatly his life impacted humanity.

To call him the Thomas Edison of his generation is not enough. In reality he was some combination of Edison and Sir Isaac Newton. Edison’s genius was that he could figure out how to make inventions that seemed beyond our technical grasp. (He also patented many inventions that never took off.) The need for a more reliable and cleaner source of light was understood in his time. Someone just needed to figure out how to do it. That was Edison’s genius. When the Apple computer was unleashed on the world, it filled a void we never knew existed. Like Sir Isaac Newton, who discerned order behind the forces of nature, Jobs could model a usable version of the information centric age the rest of us simply could not even imagine. Jobs could do that with almost any product he invented. Jobs’ genius was pulling our inchoate needs right from our id, figuring out a way technology could fulfill them, then designing irresistible products that could realize them. But he could also turn an invention that had been done before into something everyone suddenly wanted. The iPad by all rights should have not succeeded because it had been done before. The problem was that no one had built a tablet computer so easy to use and so sexy that we would be pulled to it like a moth to a flame.

I have a particular reason to mourn Steve Jobs’ passing and to be thankful to the guy. It wasn’t because I thought Apple products were particularly cool. I am typing this on an iMac, which is pretty neat, but not all that much neater than my Windows 7 computer at work. Rather, I am grateful to Steve for the Apple 2 Plus computer that he helped create. It literally changed my life. It did not make me a wealthy man, but it did make me a well-moneyed man. In part because of Steve’s Apple 2 Plus, I changed to a career I found that I loved and which paid much, much better than my old career. I became an information technology geek.

Sometime around 1983, the management where I work purchased an Apple 2 Plus computer and put it on a table near my desk. No one really knew what to do with it, but there it was all shiny and new. It was mostly ignored, but when my work was done I’d sit down at it and start playing with it. I was not entirely new to computers, but I had never experienced a personal computer before. I had experienced a mainframe computer, which in 1975 meant tediously constructing Fortran source code using a keypunch machine, delivering a stack of cards to an operator behind a glass wall, and waiting for a couple of hours until your job was run. Invariably you made some sort of syntactical error in your code, so you’d redo the cards that were coded incorrectly, being careful not to disturb the order of the cards. And you’d go through the cycle many times until with luck your program ran correctly. You would get a printout from a wide dot-matrix printer with sprocket holes on both sides of the paper. In short, programming computers could not have been more difficult, tedious and time consuming. I got through the class but if I had an idea of doing computer programming for a living, it went away. Programming was for masochists.

The Apple 2 Plus changed that. It had a keyboard and a monitor, and it ran a computer language called BASIC that was simple enough for even a novice to pick up. More importantly, it was personal. I could use it in real-time and get immediate feedback. At the time I was using pink copies of handwritten forms to track the movement of “service requests” through the printing plant I worked at. I kept them in a binder. With the Apple 2 Plus, I figured out a way to do away track these service requests on the computer. I stored the data on five and a quarter inch floppy disks. I impressed my bosses and I recall getting an award. The award included lunch with other award winners and our director in the director’s conference room. I was onto something good.

The details of what happened since then are not important except to say I wiggled my way into a journeyman’s computer programmer slot. Since 1986, I have made my living first through computer programming and later more advanced information technology stuff. The Apple 2 Plus totally changed my life. It made computer programming fun and profitable at a time where anyone with modest computing skills could get a job. My income soared, my sense of self worth and job satisfaction went through the stratosphere and eventually I had the income to live a larger and more comfortable life I craved.

That was what the genius of Steve Jobs’ mind did for me. He gave me wealth and he gave me work that was both creative and mattered in the real world. He did it by making a computer actually personable. It was a long time between that Apple 2 Plus and my 2008 purchase of an iMac, twenty-five years in fact when I lived mostly in a Windows world. I followed the market, which were machines running MS-DOS and later Windows. However, it was inventors like Steve Jobs who made computers relevant to the masses, in fact they became must have items, which stimulated demand, drove us to email systems, and then the web, and more lately into social networks. Steve was not only a creator and inventor; he cemented us into the information age. He personally connected us with technology and each other in ways that had never been done before.

He died way too young at age 56, but he could not have died without knowing the huge impact of his life. He deserves monuments and museums, cities renamed for him and, if we ever build an American Pantheon, perhaps the biggest statue in the room. I am quite certain I will not live long enough to see the rise of another man or woman of his caliber. Quite frankly, I believe that Steve Jobs may ultimately prove to be one the most influential Americans that ever lived, ranked right next to Lincoln. Through intelligence, foresight and boundless energy, he invented a broader and more connected future for all of us.

 
The Thinker

Maybe it’s about time for a little class warfare

It’s too early to say whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will have long-term legs. A group of a few hundred people has spent the last two weeks or so occupying Wall Street day and night. They are protesting many things they do not like about that street and the moneyed class that inhabit it. Yesterday, they moved uptown to the Brooklyn Bridge, occupied it, shut a span down and over five hundred protesters were arrested. However, the protest has mostly been lawful, if not more than a bit noisy, and mostly centered on Wall Street. Some on Wall Street look down from their balconies in bemusement and brazenly raise glasses of campaign at the protestors, while other traders try to tune out the commotion on the street.

Occupy Wall Street looks like a new phenomenon, but it is but the latest and it is spreading. It’s not hard to trace its roots to protests earlier this year in Madison, Wisconsin. The Occupy Wall Street movement seems more amorphous, less structured and lacking much in the way of central authority. Occasional lists of concerns dribble out of various alleged spokespeople and they seem to be a laundry list of complaints. However, they picked Wall Street for a reason. It is emblematic, even more so than Washington, of America’s problems. In a nutshell, protestors are seeing wealth being sucked up by Wall Street like they have a Hoover vacuum in our pockets and houses. They perceive that Wall Street has largely not suffered, and indeed has profited from the suffering of others. This has the inconvenient fact of being absolutely true.

In truth, some people on Wall Street (principally office workers) did suffer from the Great Recession. Brokerage houses laid off a lot of people and a few institutions like Lehman Brothers went belly up. Mostly though the politicians Wall Street had bought off with many campaign contributions came through for them when they badly screwed up. The gates of the U.S. treasury were opened and capital flooded into Wall Street firms to keep them solvent and to weather the crisis. Both Republican and Democratic administrations decided doing so was in the country’s best interests.

If Wall Street were more politically savvy perhaps it would have shown some humility. However, it was soon back to business as usual which included a phenomenal amount of arrogance. Had the United States not interfered in the stock markets, most likely many of these firms would no longer be in business. However bad stock prices are today, they would be valued much less. However necessary the bailout turned out to be, it exacerbated engrained bad habits on Wall Street.

It’s a little early to characterize exactly who is protesting but it appears to be principally the downsized, the educated but under or unemployed, and younger people feeling that Wall Street is pulling the rug from the expectations of the lifestyle they expected in adulthood. In reality, the 2000s were a lousy decade for almost everyone except for the rich. 2011 and 2012 are merely extending this lousy decade and the frustrated have had enough.

To start, they want justice. They see no justice when income is taxed higher than capital gains. They see no justice when their houses are foreclosed from under them while those who sold them shoddy mortgages escape and civil and criminal penalties. They see no fairness when Wall Street quickly starts awarding itself obscene bonuses and they, if they can get a job at all, make some fraction of their previous income. Why do they have to scramble and depend on charity (if they can find it) when Wall Street is coddled by Uncle Sam and, indeed, soon feels free to raise a finger at Uncle Sam? Many on Wall Street are tsk tsking the federal government for deficit spending, while depending on its largess when times get tough. In short, they are perceived as arrogant and out of touch hypocrites. More importantly, they are financially successful arrogant hypocrites, because with power and influence bought and paid for their world is hardly the risky one they purport it to be. In fact, it’s pretty comfy in there, at least among those of a certain class.

I think this movement will only continue to gain stature and size. It is already spreading to cities across the country, like Asheville NC, Spokane WA and Chicago. It’s not like a lot of these people have much else to do. They are already miserable and unemployed. Many are also homeless. How is it much worse to stand around day and night in front of Wall Street and scream about the injustices between rich and poor when every day you experience injustice, poverty and misery?

It is not coincidence that America grew so prosperous when wealth was shared broadly because tax rates were much higher. The extra revenue collected generally went to good use: for VA benefits, including paying for college for veterans, for highways that connected us, for student loans that allowed ordinary people to aspire to the middle class, and for basic research that provided vaccines and the Internet. The rich were never seriously impacted by these higher taxes because they were rich, but taxing more of their wealth did allow many ordinary people to get a leg up and allowed our nation to grow prosperous.

For all their riches, Wall Street pointedly ignores that their wealth and our national wealth is dependent upon the people, and how well they prosper. The more the ordinary people prosper, the more the rich are likely to prosper, because with all that new education and energy new markets will open up, and America will be primed to exploit them. In short, more taxes on the rich are not evil for society as a whole. They enable general prosperity, they promote the general welfare, and in the long term they raise all boats. Of course any tax rate can eventually turn regressive if high enough, but with tax rates lower than they have been in fifty years, there is plenty of room to increase revenues, which will be redistributed through a democratic process for arguably more productive uses than feeding the balance sheets of Wall Street bank accounts.

The dynamics of the movement will play out over time, but the movement could be pivotal in the 2012 elections. We do need a strategy that lifts all boats. Cutting taxes hasn’t done it. Supply side economics hasn’t done it. Deficit spending hasn’t done it. However, redistribution of income through the tax system from those who have more of it has worked quite well for the decades it has been tried. It’s time to try it again.

 

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